Month: May 2024

Australian researchers find simple, cost-effective desalination method

SYDNEY — Australian researchers say a simpler and cheaper method to remove salt from seawater using heat could help combat what they call “unprecedented global water shortages.” The desalination of seawater is a process where salt and impurities are removed to produce drinking water.  

Most of the world’s desalination methods use a process called reverse osmosis. It uses pressure to force seawater through a membrane. The salt is retained on one side, and purified water is passed through on the other. 

Researchers at the Australian National University (ANU) say that while widespread, the current processes need large amounts of electricity and other expensive materials that need to be serviced and maintained.  

Scientists at ANU say they developed the world’s first thermal desalination method. It is powered not by electricity, but by moderate heat generated directly from sunlight, or waste heat from machines such as air conditioners or other industrial processes. 

It uses a phenomenon called thermo diffusion, in which salt moves from hot temperatures to cold. The researchers pumped seawater through a narrow channel, which runs under a unit that was heated to greater than 60 degrees Celsius and over a bottom plate that was cooled to 20 degrees Celsius. Lower-salinity water comes from the water in the top section of the channel, closer to the heat. 

After repeated cycles through the channels, the ANU study asserts, the salinity of seawater can be reduced from 30,000 parts per million to less than 500 parts per million. 

Juan Felipe Torres, a mechanical and aerospace engineer at the Australian National University and the project’s lead chief investigator, explained his pioneering work.  

“We use a phenomenon people have not used before,” he said. “We are exploring its applicability in this context but in essence (it) should be something super simple, something as simple as a channel where you have water flowing through it and you are going to produce some sort of separation, and this is what thermal desalination is doing.”  

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has stated that by 2025, 1.8 billion people around the world are likely to face “absolute water scarcity.”  

Torres said the ANU’s invention could help ensure water supplies to communities under threat because of climate change. 

“Our vision, let’s say, for the future to have a more equitable world in terms of water security and food security is a method that does not require expensive maintenance or to train personnel to continue running it. So, we think thermal desalination would enable that,” he said.  

The ANU team is building a multi-channel solar-powered device to desalinate seawater in the Pacific kingdom of Tonga, which is enduring a severe drought.  

The research is published in the journal Nature Communications. 

Ghana toddler sets world record as the youngest male artist

ACCRA, Ghana — Meet Ace-Liam Ankrah, a Ghana toddler who has set the record as the world’s youngest male artist.

His mother, Chantelle Kukua Eghan, says it all started by accident when her son, who at the time was 6 months old, discovered her acrylic paints.

Eghan, an artist and founder of Arts and Cocktails Studio, a bar that that offers painting lessons in Ghana’s capital, Accra, said she was looking for a way to keep her son busy while working on her own paintings.

“I spread out a canvas on the floor and added paint to it, and then in the process of crawling he ended up spreading all the colors on the canvas,” she said.

And that’s how his first artwork, “The Crawl,” was born, Eghan, 25, told The Associated Press.

After that and with his mother’s prodding, Ace-Liam kept on painting.

Eghan decided to apply for the record last June. In November, Guinness World Records told her that to break a previous record, her son needed to exhibit and sell paintings.

She arranged for Ace-Liam’s first exhibition at the Museum of Science and Technology in Accra in January, where nine out of 10 of his pieces listed were sold. She declined to say for how much the paintings sold.

They were on their way.

Then, Guinness World Records confirmed the record in a statement and last week declared that “at the age of 1 year 152 days, little Ace-Liam Nana Sam Ankrah from Ghana is the world’s youngest male artist.”

Guinness World Records did not immediately respond to an Associated Press query about the previous youngest male artist record holder.

The overall record for the world’s youngest artist is currently held by India’s Arushi Bhatnagar. She had her first exhibition at the age of 11 months and sold her first painting for 5,000 rupees ($60) in 2003.

These days, Ace-Liam, who will be 2 years old in July, still loves painting and eagerly accompanies his mom to her studio, where a corner has been set off just for him. He sometimes paints in just five-minute sessions, returning to the same canvas over days of weeks, Eghan says.

On a recent day, he ran excitedly around the studio, with bursts of energy typical for boys his age. But he was also very focused and concentrated for almost an hour while painting — choosing green, yellow and blue for his latest work-in-progress and rubbing the oil colors into the canvas with his tiny fingers.

Eghan says becoming a world record holder has not changed their lives. She won’t sell “The Crawl” but plans on keeping it in the family.

She added that she hopes the media attention around her boy could encourage and inspire other parents to discover and nurture their children’s talents.

“He is painting and growing and playing in the whole process,” she says.

Lava spurts from Iceland volcano for second day

GRINDAVIK, Iceland — Lava continued to spurt from a volcano in southwestern Iceland on Thursday but the activity had calmed significantly from when it erupted a day earlier.

The eruption Wednesday was the fifth and most powerful since the volcanic system near Grindavik reawakened in December after 800 years, gushing record levels of lava as its fissure grew to 3.5 kilometers in length.

Volcanologist Dave McGarvie calculated that the amount of lava initially flowing from the crater could have buried the soccer pitch at Wembley Stadium in London under 15 meters of lava every minute.

“These jets of magma are reaching like 50 meters, into the atmosphere,” said McGarvie, an honorary researcher at Lancaster University. “That just immediately strikes me as a powerful eruption. And that was my first impression … then some numbers came out, estimating how much was coming out per minute or per second and it was, ‘Wow.'”

The activity once again threatened Grindavik, a coastal town of 3,800 people, and led to the evacuation of the popular Blue Lagoon geothermal spa, one of Iceland’s biggest tourist attractions.

Grindavik, which is about 50 kilometers southwest of Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik, has been threatened since a swarm of earthquakes in November forced an evacuation in advance of the initial December 18 eruption. A subsequent eruption consumed several buildings.

Protective barriers outside Grindavik deflected the lava Wednesday but the evacuated town remained without electricity and two of the three roads into town were inundated with lava.

“I just like the situation quite well compared to how it looked at the beginning of the eruption yesterday,” Grindavik Mayor Fannar Jónasson told national broadcaster RUV.

McGarvie said the eruption was more powerful than the four that preceded it because the largest amount of magma had accumulated in a chamber underground before breaking the earth’s surface and shooting into the sky.

The rapid and powerful start of the eruption followed by it diminishing quickly several hours later is the pattern researchers have witnessed with this volcano, McGarvie said. It’s unknown when eruptions at this volcano will end.

“It could go on for quite some considerable time,” McGarvie said. “We’re really in new territory here because eruptions like this have never been witnessed, carefully, in this part of Iceland.”

Iceland, which sits above a volcanic hot spot in the North Atlantic, sees regular eruptions. The most disruptive in recent times was the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano, which spewed huge clouds of ash into the atmosphere and led to widespread airspace closures over Europe.

None of the current cycle of eruptions have had an impact on aviation.

US optimistic a deal to lessen threats of future pandemics is in sight 

Geneva — Despite the failure of negotiators to reach a pandemic accord ahead of this week’s World Health Assembly, a senior U.S. official remains optimistic that an agreement to lessen the threats of global killer disease outbreaks is in sight.

“We think the elements of a good deal are already on the table and that is why we feel optimistic because those are pretty good deals. It is just a matter now of fine-tuning it to make sure everybody says we are ready to sign on the dotted line,” Xavier Becerra, U.S. secretary of health and human services, told journalists at a briefing in Geneva Wednesday.

While disappointing, Becerra indicated that it was not surprising that an accord was not reached after two-and-a-half years of negotiations.

“Negotiations go on forever,” he said. “I think we have to put this in perspective. You do not build a nation overnight. You do not build an Empire State Building overnight. It takes a long time. Name me a major international achievement that came overnight.

“I think there is clear consensus that we cannot let the status quo be upon us if another pandemic comes,” he said.

His view reflects that of World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who, in his opening remarks at the World Health Assembly on Monday, assured delegates that the negotiations were on track and were not a failure.

“Of course, we all wish that we had been able to reach a consensus on the agreement in time for this health assembly and cross the finish line,” he said. “But I remain confident that you still will—because where there is a will, there is a way.”

WHO says 7,010,681 people have died from the COVID-19 outbreak as of April 13 and that a total of 704,753,890 cases have been confirmed in 229 countries and territories.

Becerra noted that threats against global health have an outsized influence on broader global political and economic interests.

“There is no stability without health. There is no security without health. Our nations cannot be strong unless they are healthy.

“Getting out of COVID is our main health priority,” Becerra said, noting that U.S. President Joe Biden was committed to achieving a pandemic treaty.

“When the president came in, we were experiencing two or three 9/11s every day in America in terms of loss of life. That is where we started. Today, we are walking around without masks. We are treating COVID the way we treat the flu,” he said, indicating that now is not the time to become complacent.

“I think we realize that another pandemic could be upon us. I mean, we are dealing with avian flu in the U.S. right now. We do not know how long it is going to be before we get another type of COVID kind of tragedy. We do not want to wait,” he said.

Sticking points to a pandemic treaty include disagreements over sharing information about pathogens that cause pandemics, a formula for global sharing of vaccines and medicine during international health emergencies, and financing to set up surveillance systems.

The WHO says that member states have agreed to continue to work during the World Health Assembly “to develop the world’s first pandemic accord” to prevent a repeat of the “global health, economic and social impacts” of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We really have an incredible opportunity this week,” Loyce Pace, assistant secretary for global affairs at HHS, said.

“We have spent so long trying to come together and finding compromise and consensus. I think we talk about what is left to do, but I do not know if we talk enough about what has been done toward reaching an agreement.”

“So, whatever happens this week, we need some deliverable, if only to keep this momentum on towards any other work that should continue. We shouldn’t be leaving Geneva and go home without an accord, not after all that has been done,” Pace said.

Secretary Becerra agrees, saying that he does not think there are substantive disagreements about the essential elements of a pandemic treaty.

“It is more how they are packaged, how they are defined. People generally agree with what we have to do in order to be ready to take on any pandemic that may come across our path,” Becerra said.

“I am the son of immigrants. Optimism is in my DNA and so, I believe we are going to get this done because it would be tragic, especially given how far we have come and not get it done.

“We have to be ready,” he said. “Who knows what is coming around the corner. Something is going to broadside us. We just have to be ready.”

‘Open source’ investigators use satellites to identify burned Darfur villages

Investigators using satellite imagery to document the war in western Sudan’s Darfur region say 72 villages were burned down in April, the most they have seen since the conflict began. Henry Wilkins talks with the people who do this research about how so-called open-source investigations could be crucial in holding those responsible for the violence to account.

Robot will try to remove nuclear debris from Japan’s destroyed reactor

TOKYO — The operator of Japan’s destroyed Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant demonstrated Tuesday how a remote-controlled robot would retrieve tiny bits of melted fuel debris from one of three damaged reactors later this year for the first time since the 2011 meltdown.

Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings plans to deploy a “telesco-style” extendable pipe robot into Fukushima Daiichi No. 2 reactor to test the removal of debris from its primary containment vessel by October.

That work is more than two years behind schedule. The removal of melted fuel was supposed to begin in late 2021 but has been plagued with delays, underscoring the difficulty of recovering from the magnitude 9.0 quake and tsunami in 2011.

During the demonstration at the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’ shipyard in Kobe, western Japan, where the robot has been developed, a device equipped with tongs slowly descended from the telescopic pipe to a heap of gravel and picked up a granule.

TEPCO plans to remove less than 3 grams (0.1 ounce) of debris in the test at the Fukushima plant.

“We believe the upcoming test removal of fuel debris from Unit 2 is an extremely important step to steadily carry out future decommissioning work,” said Yusuke Nakagawa, a TEPCO group manager for the fuel debris retrieval program. “It is important to proceed with the test removal safely and steadily.”

About 880 tons of highly radioactive melted nuclear fuel remain inside the three damaged reactors. Critics say the 30- to 40-year cleanup target set by the government and TEPCO for Fukushima Daiichi is overly optimistic. The damage in each reactor is different, and plans must accommodate their conditions.

Better understanding the melted fuel debris from inside the reactors is key to their decommissioning. TEPCO deployed four mini drones into the No. 1 reactor’s primary containment vessel earlier this year to capture images from the areas where robots had not reached.

Cameroon fights period stigma and poverty on World Menstrual Hygiene Day

Yaounde — Cameroon is observing World Menstrual Hygiene Day (May 28) with caravans visiting schools and public spaces to educate people about social taboos that women should not be seen in public during their menstrual periods. Organizations are also donating menstrual kits to girls displaced by terrorism and political tensions in the central African state.

Scores of youths, a majority of them girls, are told that menstruation is a natural part of the reproductive cycle.

Officials in Cameroon’s social affairs and health ministries say the monthly flows are not a curse and girls and women should never be isolated from markets, schools, churches and other public places because of their menstrual cycle.

The government of the central African state says it invited boys to menstrual health day activities because boys often mock girls in schools when they see blood dripping on their legs or skirts.

Tabe Edwan is the spokesperson of Haven of Rebirth Cameroon, an association that takes care of victims of sexual and gender-based violence. She says she participates in in activities to mark World Menstrual Health Day to battle taboos about menstruation that persist in Cameroon.

“We are looking at instances of stigmatization such as prohibition from cooking, prohibition from attending religious ceremonies or visiting such spaces,” she said. “Most often a young girl who is having her menstrual flow is considered to be unclean and so anything that she touches becomes unclean or it also becomes contaminated.”

Cameroon’s government says World Menstrual Day activities took place in many towns and villages, especially in the northwest and southwest regions, where a separatist conflict, now in its seventh year, has displaced about 750,000 people.

The country’s Social Affairs Ministry says displaced women and girls have lost nearly everything and lack even the $2 needed to buy sanitary pads each time they are on their monthly cycle.

Mirabelle Sonkey is founder of the Network for Solidarity Hope and Empowerment, a founding member of the International Menstrual Hygiene Coalition.

Sonkey says she is disheartened when women and girls use rags, papers and tree leaves or just anything unhealthy to stop blood flow because they cannot afford sanitary pads.

“We usually give about 1,000 dignity kits which include buckets, soap, pants and reusable, washable menstrual pads,” she said. “We are still advocating for pads to be free. Our mission is to have an environment where pads will be accessible, that is why we are opening pad banks now where vulnerable women and girls can go there and have pads.”

Sonkey pleaded with donors to provide sanitary pads to give to several thousand northern Cameroonian girls and women displaced by Boko Haram terrorism.

Cameroon’s government says 70% of menstruating women and girls lack access to regular basic sanitation products but it has not reacted to pleas from NGOs to distribute sanitary pads free of charge.

The central African state’s officials say families and communities should help put an end to stigmas by openly discussing menstrual flow and letting everyone know that menstruation is a normal and natural biological function.

WHO chief urges countries to quickly seal pandemic deal

Geneva — The World Health Organization chief on Monday urged countries to nail down a landmark global agreement on handling of future pandemics after they missed a hard deadline.

Scarred by COVID-19 — which killed millions, shredded economies and crippled health systems — nations have spent two years trying to forge binding commitments on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response.

Negotiators failed to clinch a deal ahead of this week’s World Health Assembly — the annual gathering of WHO’s 194 member states — the deadline for concluding the talks.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus opened the assembly Monday, saying he was confident that an agreement would be secured.

“Of course, we all wish that we had been able to reach a consensus on the agreement in time for this health assembly and crossed the finish line,” he said.

“But I remain confident that you still will, because where there is a will, there is a way.”

Tedros said the task before negotiators had been “immense, technically, legally, and politically”, and that they had been “operating on a very ambitious timeline.”

“You have demonstrated a clear commitment to reaching an agreement,” he said, adding that negotiators had “worked long days and nights,” closing meetings as late as 4:00 a.m.

He hailed their dedication to push forward despite “a torrent of misinformation that was undermining your negotiations.”

While missing Friday’s deadline, countries have voiced a commitment to keep pushing for an accord.

Negotiators are due on Tuesday to present the outcome of the talks to the assembly, which runs until June 1, and the assembly will take stock and decide what to do next.

“I know that there remains among you a common will to get this done, so, there must always be a way,” Tedros said.

“Meaning the solution is in your hands,” he stressed.

Parallel talks have also taken place on revising the International Health Regulations, which were first adopted in 1969 and constitute the existing international legally binding framework for responding to public health emergencies around the world.

The proposed amendments to the IHR, including adding more nuance to a system meant to alert countries to potential health emergencies of global concern, might have a better chance of being adopted during this week’s assembly, observers said.

Military labs do the detective work to identify soldiers decades after they died in World War II

OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. — Generations of American families have grown up not knowing exactly what happened to their loved ones who died while serving their country in World War II and other conflicts.

But a federal lab tucked away above the bowling alley at Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha and a sister lab in Hawaii are steadily answering those lingering questions, aiming to offer 200 families per year the chance to honor their relatives with a proper burial.

“They may not even have been alive when that service member was alive, but that story gets carried down through the generations,” said Carrie Brown, a Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency lab manager at Offutt. “They may have seen on the mantle a picture of that person when they were little and not really understood or known who they were.”

Memorial Day and the upcoming 80th anniversary of D-Day on June 6 are reminders of the urgency of Brown’s work. The forensic anthropologists, medical examiners and historians who work together to identify lost soldiers are in a race against time as remains buried on battlefields around the globe deteriorate.

But advances in DNA technology, combined with innovative techniques including comparing bones to chest X-rays taken by the military, mean the labs can identify more of the missing soldiers every year. Some 72,000 World War II soldiers remain unaccounted for, along with roughly 10,000 more from all the conflicts since. The experts believe about half of those are recoverable.

The agency identified 59 servicemembers in 2013, when the Offutt lab first opened. That number has steadily risen — 159 service members last year, up from 134 in 2022 — and the labs have a goal of 200 identifications annually.

The labs’ work allowed Donna Kennedy to bury her cousin, Cpl. Charles Ray Patten, with full military honors this month in the same Lawson, Missouri, cemetery where his father and grandfather are buried. Patten died 74 years ago during the Korean War, but spent decades buried as an unknown in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii.

“I just I ached. I mean, it hurt. You know, I just felt so bad. Even though I didn’t know him, I loved him,” Kennedy said.

Patten’s funeral was a simple affair with just a few family members. But often when veterans who fought decades earlier are identified, people waving flags and holding signs line the streets of their hometowns to herald the return of their remains.

“This work is important first and foremost because these are individuals that gave their lives to protect our freedom, and they paid the ultimate sacrifice. So we’re here holding that promise that we’ll return them home to their families,” Brown said.

“It’s important for their families to show them that we’ll never stop, no matter what,” she said.

Often there are compelling details, Brown said.

One of her first cases involved the intact remains of a World War I Marine found in a forest in France with his wallet still in his pocket. The wallet, initialed G.H., contained a New York Times article describing plans for the offensive in which he ultimately died. He also had an infantryman badge with his name and the year he received it on the back.

Before leaving France with the remains, the team visited a local cemetery where other soldiers were buried and learned there were only two missing soldiers with the initials G.H.

Brown had a fair idea who that soldier was before his remains even arrived in the lab. That veteran was buried in Arlington National Cemetery and Brown often visits his grave when she is in Washington D.C.

Most cases aren’t that easy.

The experts who work at the lab must piece together identities by looking at historical records about where the remains were found and which soldiers were in the area. They then consult the list of possible names and use the bones, objects found with them, military medical records and DNA to confirm their identities. They focus on battles and plane crashes where they have the greatest chance of success because of available information.

But their work can be complicated if soldiers were buried in a temporary cemetery and moved when a unit was forced to retreat. And unidentified soldiers were often buried together.

When remains are brought to the lab, they sometimes include an extra bone. Experts then spend months or even years matching the bones and waiting for DNA and other test results to confirm their identities.

One test even can identify if the soldier grew up primarily eating rice or a corn-based diet.

The lab also compares specific traits of collar bones to the chest X-rays the military routinely took of soldiers before they were deployed. It helps that the military keeps extensive records of all soldiers.

Those clues help the experts put together the puzzle of someone’s identity.

“It’s not always easy. It’s certainly not instantaneous,” Brown said. “Some of the cases, we really have to fight to get to that spot, because some of them have been gone for 80 years.”

Life expectancy bouncing back globally after COVID pandemic 

London — Life expectancy in Europe has returned to the level it reached before the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, while the U.S. is still trying to regain lost ground. Overall, new numbers show life expectancy has increased in most parts of the world, with eastern sub-Saharan Africa showing the biggest gains over the past three decades.

Latest European Union figures released this month show the average life expectancy across the bloc in 2023 was 81.5 years — almost a year’s gain over 2022, as the coronavirus pandemic was coming to an end.

Jennifer Beam Dowd is a professor of demography and population health at the University of Oxford.

“Within Europe, we’re seeing really high life expectancy in countries like Spain and Italy, Sweden, Norway, but some countries are falling behind their peers and that includes the UK. And then Eastern Europe has made a lot of progress since the post-Soviet mortality crisis of the 1990s, but they’re still lagging behind a bit,” she said.

A recent study in the Lancet journal showed that globally, life expectancy increased by 6.2 years between 1990 and 2021 — with eastern sub-Saharan Africa experiencing the largest increase of some 10.7 years.

“I think that’s really good news and reflects a lot of continued progress all over the world in falls and infectious disease and infant and child mortality, which makes a big difference to life expectancy because you’re saving a lot of years of life if you save lives at young ages,” said Jennifer Beam Dowd.

Figures released in March showed average life expectancy in the United States in 2022, the most recent data available, was 77.5 years — still more than a year lower than the life expectancy before the pandemic. Figures for 2023 have not yet been released.

“A lot of countries have bounced back close to pre-pandemic life expectancy, but some countries such as the U.S. have not returned yet to the levels they were at in 2019,” said Jennifer Beam Dowd. “Another thing that’s having a big impact, we think right now, is the obesity epidemic, which started taking off, especially in the U.S., in the early 1980s. And in fact, we are seeing major slowdowns in improvements from cardiovascular disease that are driving a lot of the stalling life expectancy in high-income countries.”

The European principality of Monaco — a favorite home for the super-rich — had the world’s highest life expectancy in 2023, at almost 90 years, according to U.S. figures.